What the hell is happening to me? The sheer number of animated and family movies I’ve found myself watching this year is really off the charts, at least for someone like me. I saw Finding Dory in theaters (first time I’ve done that for a Pixar movie), I caught up with Zootopia relatively quickly, I’m going to be caught up with the remake of The Jungle Book pretty soon and before the year’s up I also plan to catch up with The BFG, and will probably be pressured into seeing Moana when that comes out. To a lot of people this would not be out of the ordinary and if someone has kids they are probably suck watching this stuff whether they want to or not but until very recently I’ve steadfastly refused to see family movies and until pretty much this year have at least waited until well after the year of release to catch up with even the most popular of children’s’ animated movies. This is largely a matter of finally feeling relatively caught up to the latest trends in the genre because of my last essay series and generally feeling knowledgeable to really judge these movies outside of the walled off confines of “skeptical journeys” but it also has to do with Hollywood’s recent output, which has been better than usual. In fact it may be the best year for respectable family fare since 2009, a banner year which gave us Up, Where the Wild Thing Are, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and most relevantly a movie called Coraline which was the breakout film for a stop-motion animation studio called Laika, which would go on to produce the latest family movie I’ve seen this year: Kubo and the Two Strings.
Set in a mythical ancient Japan, the film follows a boy of about ten named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who seems to have inherited magical powers from his mother, who has been slightly out of it since hitting her head when Kubo was an infant as she escaped from a malevolent deity called The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Kubo uses these powers to act as a street performer at the village where they’ve settled but is under strict orders to return home before nightfall because his location would be revealed to The Moon King if he’s touched by moonlight. As tends to happens with rules established like that, he does indeed find himself stuck out at night eventually and soon his mother’s sisters (Rooney Mara) appear and start to chase him. His mother perishes in the attack but she uses the last of her magic to bring a baboon charm (Charlize Theron) to life who decides to guide Kubo on a quest for magical armor and weaponry that may save him from the wrath of the Moon King.
Laika is, to my knowledge, the only studio that has managed to regularly put out stop-motion movies and they’ve established a house style that is melancholy and a little dark, but still well within the expectations of the mainstream family film. I think they lightened up a bit with their second and third films, but for their latest they seem to have upped their ambition a little and returned to the melancholy of Coraline. That is not to say that Kubo and the Two Strings is depressing by any normal metric, in fact it’s something of a fun adventure movie in many ways, but it is a little more serious in tone than what we usually get from Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, etc. Of course the other thing that sets them apart is the stop motion format they use, which is a cheaper format than CGI animation and has allowed them to take some risks that other studios can’t and which gives their movies a unique look. In some ways they’ve almost become too good at this form of animation because at times you could almost mistake this for a CGI movie, which is maybe a problem if you’re looking for that lo-fi charm that stop-motion generally grants a movie. There is, however, very little doubt that this is a beautiful movie in its design and general vision.
So, from an execution standpoint I have very few complaints about the movie, but I must say that beneath the style I found the film’s basic story structure to be rather… inorganic. The movie has a really linier approach: it sets up its world, hits its main character with a catalyst almost immediately after establishing that such a thing could happen, introduces us to two sidekicks, and then has the character go through exactly three fetch-quests before having him confront the villain at the end and declare that he’s learned a lesson. If I were being charitable I’d say that the movie was drawing from age old story structures, if I were being less charitable I’d say that it was a dressed up Legend of Zelda story. It’s perhaps a testament to skill of the movie that a lot of this is not on the forefront of your mind when you’re actually watching it. Like, for example, the film’s ending where Kubo shows that he’s matured and uses everything he’s learned to prevail at the end. While watching this felt pretty impactful but when I looked back on it it felt unearned; I don’t feel like there was really anything that happened over the course of this adventure that would have led Kubo to take in the lofty life lessons he claims to have learned.
I feel like this is one of many movies that could have stood to have taken place over a longer period of time rather than over the course of a seemingly three day road trip… but again, this isn’t necessarily something that was bothering me while I was watching the beautiful stop-motion animation on screen. Really, compared to most of the movies Hollywood tries to pawn off on children this is definitely a lot better, it’s only by rather high standards that it falls short and I don’t want to come off as too negative. Laika remains a pretty awesome studio and they need whatever support they can get because I have a bit of a hunch that they make the kind of family movies that parents insist their kids go to rather than the kind that kids actually ask to see. In my review of The Hunt For the Wilderpeople I called these “Family Movies for Kids With Cool Parents” or FMFKWCPs, which is an acronym I’m going to have to work on because I do think it’s an interesting phenomenon. Amongst FMFKWCPs this is no Spirited Away and for that matter it’s no Coraline, but one must consider the bigger picture. Before watching the movie I was treated to trailers to the likes of Sing, Storks, and Trolls… so it’s safe to say that this is way better than the competition even if it’s a little less deep and more formulaic than it first appears.